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Gear Review: Around the World with the SPOT Personal Tracker

Sometimes when I’m hundreds of miles away from any cell or internet service and haven’t been able to communicate with the outside world, my mom likes to update friends with stories about my exact location:


I wonder at times if she ends up learning more about where I’m at than I do – but then, she gets to cheat, researching on the internet while I’m trying to avoid being eaten by black and brown bears. Other friends like to keep track of where I’m at as well, often sending me bits of advice or congratulations; when I finally checked in days after getting through the 18k foot high Throng La Pass in Nepal, I had more congrats for making it there than I did for my birthday a couple days earlier!

[P1090731 (2)[10].jpg]In the last twelve months, I’ve been around South America, North America, and Asia with excursions to Europe and Africa. Everywhere I’ve been, my friends and family have been able to see almost exactly where I am at any time, and it’s all thanks to my SPOT Personal Tracker.

I have the first generation SPOT, a little plastic orange box with rubber grips about the size of three iphones lying on top of each other. Many original reviews made quite the fuss about how confusing this piece of plastic was, but in reality it’s a dead simple device. The first few times you play with it you may find it confusing, but you’ll pick it up soon enough. I only ever turn it on, activate tracking, and turn it off, a quick and easy process that becomes second nature after a few days on the road with the device.

There are some major advantages in it being such a simple device as well: it’s incredibly rugged, mostly waterproof, simple to stash, and runs for what seems like decades on two lithium AA’s (I can get 3-5 weeks out of a set if I turn it off at night). You don’t need to ever muck about with it.

[P1090736 (2)[4].jpg]A lot of new SPOT users get confused by both on-line reviews and all the documentation that suggest you must somehow magically float the SPOT facing upwards towards the sky without even a leaf blocking its weak, easily disrupted satellite communication. Bzzzt! Wrong. Waste of time. Just toss it near the top of a pack and you’ll be fine. I’ve had perfectly good track logs with the device upside-down in the bottom of a pack or surrounded by trees and mountains – even in a typical office building it will work fine if you’re near a window.

The trick with this is accuracy: it’s not incredibly precise when not floating magically, but when you’re five thousand miles away from home do you really care if someone thinks you’re at a tree thirty feet away from the rock you’re actually under? The only real downside to this is that when you are actually standing still and the SPOT doesn’t have a good fix it will update your location constantly within a 30-50ft radius, spamming your location history. The solution to this is simple and highly recommended for increasing battery life anyway – just turn it off when you’re in camp.

A final note about the device itself: to this day, almost every review seems to complain about how easy it appears to press the 911 button. Ignore them – it’s not. There’s no need to worry about it unless you’re shoving it into a compression sack with a bunch of ball bearings. It’d probably actually be pretty hard to trigger the 911 button on purpose, considering how teeny it is. (For the record, I didn’t bother to subscribe to the 911 service but have never had the button activated)

So, the device itself is simple, reliable, light, easy to pack, easy to manage, and generally easy to use. This would normally be all you’d need to hear to buy something, except with this type of device there’s the other side: the on-line presentation of your location and data interaction.

The main purpose (for most of us) of the SPOT device is to share your location with others, and to do that you need fancy web software, nifty widgets, and fantastic social networking integration. This is where SPOT falls flat on its face: it’s on-line sharing is barely sufficient in my opinion, totally failing to take advantage of the many opportunities out there (though it would have rocked in 2002).

The most bizarre part of their service is that they only store 30 days of information – if you do not download and archive your data every few weeks, it is lost forever. They never explain this, however there’s no reasonable technical reason for it that I can think of (data like this is highly compressible and easily processed), leaving me to speculate that it must be some sort of legal protection/liability issue (best way to avoid getting entangled in privacy issues). Personally I would be happy to sign any sort of waiver and even pay an extra $10/yr to have all my location data available at any time without having to keep downloading it, but I do understand that they don’t want to be subpoenaed and deal with the negative press.

One of the ways SPOT tries to allow you to preserve this data is through their SPOT Adventures site, an interesting foray into social networking around adventuring. My biggest problem with this stems from the same 30 day preservation issue – for example, by the time I had finished in Nepal and was somewhere with the time and inclination to set up an adventure review, I was more than 30 days past the beginning of the adventure. The suggested solutions of adventuring less and playing on-line more or giving a friend access to your data and having them download it are a bit unreasonable in my opinion (a cronjob to pull it down is much more manageable if you’re technically inclined).

By now you get the point, if you want to get benefit from their on-line stuff after an adventure you better be taking short adventures or having someone else coordinate your stuff (or write a program to do it for you). The SPOT Adventures site is pretty nifty though – it does a great job of integrating with services like Flickr to allow you to bring in photos and show a sort of slideshow combined with your GPS data. You can see this on my Mototaxi Junket page here – or, you could, if they hadn’t apparently broken their own site at some point and caused the GPS track to disappear (the photos are still there though).

The core failure is one that I’m seeing all too commonly lately, however. Simply put, small companies should stop trying to create their own separate social networks around their devices, tools, or products. This is a terminal fail business and technology strategy because they are not equipped to compete in the social networking arena. Instead they should focus on their core product and integrate with existing social networks. SPOT fails miserably in this regard – there is no official Facebook app or simple integration with Facebook, Twitter, or any blogging media (or even official support for embedding location as an image rather than a widget).

As of today, with recent changes to Facebook app boxes, it’s not even possible for visitors to a Facebook fan page to see your location via SPOT on your wall (until last month you could embed a custom created FBML box with a static image created by Blogloc using data mashup from FireEagle connected with your SPOT account to show an image like that to the left, but now FB requires a full app which does not exist– if that seems at all excessive, you’re right).

Another disappointment is that in the last year there has been only one major improvement in their widget and data integration outside SPOT Adventures that I’ve noticed, which was a much better widget with less advertising overload (though the full screen historical view still wastes a third of your screen with in-your-face advertising). You can see this newer widget on my blog, though depending on when you view it you may notice one of the other annoying things about it, a lack of basic error correction (if I haven’t turned on my SPOT for the last 7 days it will give a confusing error that implies the widget is misconfigured instead of explaining the situation):

There are other issues with their on-line presentation, including a limit of 50 trackpoints per map (forcing people to click through the history) and a tendency towards intense confusion with overlapping track points. The results at time can be a complete mess. I’ve taken to going outside their system in order to build simple, easy to interact with track logs (maybe they should buy up GPS Visualizer).

At the end of the day, you have a sticky confusing web mashup that doesn’t provide the sleek location based features people expect these days, a complete lack of social networking integration, a frustrating lack of data retention requiring you to manage your own history, a company that seems to rely on recommending random third-party apps for their on-line experience and yet another social network to join and manage to get what you might expect out of the experience. In short, a massive amount of unrealized potential.

The most amazing thing about the SPOT system, however, is that in spite of all these frustrations, I would still flat out recommend it to anyone who wants to share their location with friends and family, no questions asked. The reason for this is also the reason for my frustration: it’s a incredibly simple and service. The device itself is so fire-and-forget that nothing else can compete with it (smartphone-based trackers require so much management and eat batteries like crazy). The on-line presence is equally simple: here is a URL (or widget) you can send people to and they can see where you are almost anywhere in the world, almost up to the minute.

That’s why the SPOT system rocks and I talk it up to everyone who asks about it. One day, they’re going to figure out this whole social networking integration thing and provide some streamlined apps and every cool adventurer will have a widget on their Facebook and Twitter and Youtube showing their exact location as they update from the middle of nowhere and we’ll all be so hooked in we won’t even realize how awesome it is…  I just hope SPOT is smart enough to take us there and gain all that capital, instead of relying on us to do it ourselves.


CraigM said…

Just stumbled upon your Spot rel world comments. Excellent, answered a few queries I had.

I'm just about to embark on a 3 month motorcycle ride and wanted to embed the personal tracking mapping into my own site, seems like it's no possible without some serious hassle which is a pain.

pete said…
Hey Craig! They do offer a newer iframe that isn't too bad, it just has the major limit of only showing 50 positions at once and not going back more than 30 days.

It's not as ugly as the old one, I've been considering using it again instead of writing my own even though it doesn't integrate as well as it should.

Really my biggest beef at this point is that it's all java interactive if you use their widgets, so unless you're willing to spare a 300x300 or larger window it's not so handy.

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